In Canada: Thursdays, 9/8c, Global
Although few realised it at the time, one of the most enduring legacies of the Stephen Harper government in Canada was the Jason Priestley Full Employment Act. Passed midway during Harper’s period in office, it had one basic stipulation those on the left described as ‘croneyism’ but those on the right regarded as essential to Canada’s future economic development: the continuing, 24/7 employment of the likable but only averagely talented actor Jason Priestley by the Canadian entertainment industry.
At first, the obligations of the Act seemed relatively simple to abide by, with HBO Canada granting him four seasons of Call Me Fitz, despite it being a relatively obvious, largely unfunny twist on My Name is Earl in which a car insurance salesman is followed around by someone who claims to be his conscience. Lasting four seasons, it managed to keep Priestley sufficiently occupied that he only had time to appear in an entire season of Haven and a couple of theatrical productions.
However, HBO’s decision to end Call Me Fitz on the grounds of it ‘not being very good’ meant that the industry was now breaking the law, prompting the Harper government to fire a warning shot across Canadian TV’s bows and to cut CBC’s finances significantly. The industry took note and soon responded.
As well as significant voiceover work, Priestley was soon given not one but two new series: Raising Expectations and Private Eyes. Critics argued that with the arrival of the Trudeau government, there was no need for these shows. Indeed, they were quite clearly programmes that had only been created to give Jason Priestley a job. Yet so inured was Canadian television to the extrinsic need to employ Jason Priestley that many had succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, arguing that not only were these shows needed, they were even good – despite the fact that even a moment’s thought would have shown them that Private Eyes in particular was truly awful. They really should have paid attention to that thought, because it would prove to be their wake-up call.
A combination of nostalgia for terrible 80s US private detective shows and a blatant attempt to copy the formula of Castle (or indeed any show, just as long as Priestley could remain in perpetual work – Castle just seemed to have the easiest formula to copy), Private Eyes saw Priestley implausibly playing a former ice hockey star turned scout looking after a young protege who’s about to hit the big time. When the aspiring star implausibly has a heart attack on the rink, Priestley suspects foul play and begins to investigate, implausibly working alongside a private investigator (Cindy Sampson) recommended to him by his telephone engineer father (Barry Flatman).
Ultimately left without anyone to coach yet needing large amounts of money to afford his luxurious lifestyle and implausibly to be able to send his gifted blind daughter to private school, Priestley’s still-implausibly named character, Matt Shade, decides implausibly that his best option is to become a business partner with Sampson in the notoriously poorly paid profession of private investigator.
Were it not for the requirements of the Act, such a laughable premise would have remained firmly on paper. Instead, it was commissioned as a 10-part series by the Global network, where almost minimum effort was put into its realisation – it was, after all, enough it be made, since the Act, quickly rushed through Parliament, had overlooked including a stipulation that required Priestley’s government-mandated shows to be good.
The show’s faults were so numerous, practically a new counting system was needed to list them all. There was its name – a staggeringly lazy name for a private detective show, more so given that there wasn’t even the slightest sign of a double meaning to it. There was its lazy choice of theme tune, a cover of Hall and Oates already insipid ‘Private Eyes’ made even blander.
There was its lazy choice of co-lead, Sampson being possibly one of the worst actresses in the world, certainly of those who had never bothered leaving Canada, but who had got the job by virtue of having been available on the first day of filming.
There was its astonishingly weak dialogue, the complete lack of chemistry between its leads, the complete lack of attempts to break any formula of the private detective genre, the absence of any kind of understanding of police procedure and minimal tension.
Even the characterisation varied massively, just in the first two episodes, with Priestley being a smooth, astute, potential private investigator in the first episode, Sampson likely to put her foot in it, the two then swapping roles in the second episode for no good reason. Priestley, down on his luck at the end of episode one, is paying for expensive restaurant meals and the privilege of working with Sampson by episode two – ostensibly through having sold his championship ring on eBay.
The show made even New Zealand’s Brokenwood Mysteries look fast-paced, thrilling and innovative. Many put that down to the writers’ true desire to be making a TV cooking or sports show, guessing that the constant references to sport and restaurant food in Private Eyes were less an attempt to give Priestley’s character background, more an attempt to create a subtextual, onscreen CV for future employers. Others assumed the show was a cunningly crafted backdoor pilot for a Canadian version of The Greatest Event in Television History, so slavishly did the title sequence follow the brainless conventions of late 80s syndicated US television.
However, more disturbingly, it was soon revealed that Private Eyes was in actuality the biggest protest against the Jason Priestley Full Employment Act since its passing through Parliament, the sole aim of the show being to ridicule the Act sufficiently that it be repealed, so that Priestley would never be employed by Canadian TV ever again purely because of government whim.
The Emperor really did have no clothes – the show was intentionally bad. How could anyone ever have thought otherwise?